Halo 2 is now over six years old. Let that sink in for a minute. This is the game that single handedly carried Xbox Live on its back, and arguably laid the foundation for all modern console-based multiplayer gaming. It overcame the burden of being the first sequel to one of the most popular and well-received launch titles in the history of gaming, and it largely met the expectations of fans. It made huge inroads for consoles in the realm of professional, competitive gaming. Its legacy is undeniably cemented in history, but how does it stand up to a current-day critical examination? Unfortunately, the answer is “not very well.”
When you consider that Half-Life 2 came out during the same month, and compare both games today on the Xbox 360, it really emphasizes how poorly Halo 2 has aged. I know that’s not really a fair comparison since Half-Life 2 (as part of the Orange Box) was a 360-specific release, while Halo 2 is a previous-generation title which is emulated by the 360 hardware. “Apples and oranges,” you may say, and you’d be correct. One title focused primarily on the single-player experience, and the other emphasized co-op and multiplayer gameplay. One was originally developed for the PC, and the other was designed to push its aging and underpowered console hardware to the limit. But both games were so incredibly high-profile, and wildly popular, that it would be silly not to compare them. As someone who enjoyed both games originally on each of their native platforms, I try to remain as objective as possible. It’s difficult when you consider that some of Halo 2’s generally agreed-upon flaws were addressed (if not entirely corrected) by its sequels, and that Half-Life 2 has stood the test of time pretty much on its own. For many people, it’s asking too much to focus exclusively on gameplay and to overlook the graphical shortcomings. But this isn’t really about pitting the two games against each other. I only thought it prudent to mention how comparisons kept popping into my head throughout the Halo 2 play-through.
What’s still fun:
The core combat of Halo 2 is undoubtedly the high point of this revisiting, though I realize there remains a large faction of gamers who do not appreciate the “low-gravity” jumping which is central to the underlying mechanic. Dive-bombing unsuspecting opponents with the energy sword is still incredibly satisfying. Successfully sticking an elusive enemy with a thrown plasma grenade and watching them freak out never gets old. Vehicular combat, particularly with the smaller and more nimble vehicles, remains entertaining.
And of course, fans of co-op gameplay will probably hang on to their copies of Halo 2 as long as they have console hardware on which to play them. One annoying caveat to that last statement is that split-screen co-op is divided vertically (side by side), rather than the horizontal splitting found in more recent franchises such as Gears of War. Combine that with the comparatively lower resolution of Halo 2, and it doesn’t make for the best overall split-screen gaming experience.
Where it falls short:
The voice acting of Halo 2 is staggeringly awful when compared with more modern triple-A productions. Everyone except Sergeant Major Johnson sounds like they’re on valium. I’m not saying they should sound like the testosterone-overdosing steroid gobblers of Gears, but at least convey a sense of urgency when the situation calls for it! Miranda Keyes is particularly egregious, and it’s no surprise that her voice actress was not invited back to reprise the role in Halo 3. The dialogue itself is pretty atrocious too, with enough scripted clichés to fill… a huge book of clichés.
The level design in Halo 2 is mostly lacking, particularly the orbital and interior areas. Repetitive, bland textures don’t help, and often result in aimless wandering especially in split-screen mode when your field of view is almost cripplingly curtailed. The curse of bilateral symmetry from the first game’s library level persists, and creates an unnerving sense of déjà vu during those sections.
This complaint dovetails nicely into my next criticism, which is lack of enemy diversity. I have always disliked the series’ overreliance on the Flood to provide such variety, because in most instances it’s essentially just as lazy as palette-swapping (see also: the Lambent in Gears of War, though to a lesser extent). It speaks to creative bankruptcy, especially when abused in a repetitive manner.
The ending of Halo 2 is legendary for having angered the developers and fans alike. There’s really not much more that needs to be said, other than it being a textbook demonstration of what casualties occur when publishers get caught up in rigid adherence to release schedules.